The Greengrass Bluegrass Newgrass Project
an essay by Susan Gorsen

Much has happened since the summer of 2002 when 6 artists from KY converged on Belfast for the Trace Gallery July 4th exhibition organized by Deirdre Robb. Simultaneously, these American artists, with the addition of artists from the Dublin area, were invited by the Belfast GBN Group and Billy Coulter, Leisure Services Manager of Castlereagh Borough, to once again work collaboratively with each other as well as a select group of talented teenage artists from East Belfast.

Using the computer and art studio facilities of Castlereagh College, the basic task essentially replicated the Artopia Project done in Louisville several months before: offer talented teen artists the chance to work hands on side by side during a week long project thus providing them the opportunity for an intensely personal look into the creative ideas process and problem solving skills of an international group of artists with well established professional careers.

After only a week in the studio, the completed works of art were installed for exhibit in the lobby of the Waterfront Hall, Belfast's' premiere cultural performance facility. It must be noted that without the non-stop, support, encouragement and engineering expertise of Mick O'Rourke and Gordon Garner, installation for some of the above mentioned projects might have proved to be challenges beyond the scope of some artists' abilities. Participating artists were C.J. Pressma working with Colin Davis, Maura O'Rourke with Marty Walsh, Joyce Garner and Ray Duncan, Ian Fleming with Tom Pfannerstill and , for the 2nd such collaboration, Suzanne Mitchell teamed with Deirdre Robb. Susan Gorsen served as recording photographer for the entire project.

During their stay at the lovely Clandeboye Lodge near Bangor, the visiting artists had the opportunity to tour highlights of the North Antrim coast as well as rural towns near Belfast. Everyone enjoyed having evening meals and parties and impromptu musicales in the homes of several Belfast artists , along with a special night of bowling entirely arranged by the enthusiastic student collaborators.

Having very successfully completed 3 ambitious programs in less than 6 months, the group discussed the many benefits and logistical challenges of these international studio and exhibition projects. Many of the artists involved have crossed the Atlantic 4-5 times for events relating to the Grasses Project. Amazingly, with so many creative personalities involved, none wished to withdraw. Many others were interested in taking part in future Grasses Project endeavors. It was jointly decided that these programs need to both continue and expand. Emphasis was placed on trying to include artists from other regions as well as bringing in artists from other disciplines such as writers or musicians. The biggest questions relate to who and how this might be accomplished. The Belfast artists had very successfully formed the GBN Belfast Project and were in a position to make formal applications to various funding groups. In Kentucky, funding opportunities for a grass roots artist driven initiative continued to look unpromising.

In Louisville, the Erin Devine Gallery mounted the 4th "Irish Art Now", a February 2003 exhibition featuring Marua O'Rourke, Brian Haggerty and Caro Hopkins. By the summer of 2003 Ian Fleming and Maura O'Rourke were already planning an independent collaborative project of their own involving the history and mythology of Tara, home of Ireland's ancient kings. This major 20 painting exhibition with full historical documentation opened in Louisville's PYRO Gallery early in January 2004.

Working toward the goal of not wanting a loss in momentum for the Grasses Project while trying to figure out how to expand and in which direction for our next major focus, Maura O'Rourke (with minor administrative assistance from Ian Fleming, Erin Devine and Susan Gorsen)organized "Encompass", a small works exhibition held in March 2004 at Ardgillan Castle in Balbriggan by the sea, Co. Dublin. This was a very successful exhibition with nearly 300 in attendance at the opening. Undoubtedly much of this show's success is owing to the diversity and unusually high quality works submitted by more than 50 artists from Ireland, Northern Ireland and the US.

Currently there are 2 more Grasses Projects on the horizon, an assemblage of e-mailed images from 60 artists to be both installed and, at night, video projected at Queens University in conjunction with the November 2004 Belfast Festival. The Belfast GBN Group has cleverly organized this international cyber art project, in part, to escape the universal Customs restrictions and expenses placed in the path of artists trying to find an audience for their work in a foreign country.

The 2nd program being planned involves a 3rd studio collaboration between artists from KY and southern Indiana hosting artists from Ireland and Northern Ireland for approximately 2 weeks in mid-May. Partnering with the Grasses Project will be the Mary Anderson Center, a rural Indiana artists' residency and retreat facility 15 minutes across the Ohio river from Louisville, and the Fine Arts Department of Indiana University Southeast who are permitting our artists to use some of their studio facilities as well as offering their Barr Gallery to exhibit the completed project. This newest planned collaboration will be different ,not just in the expanded number of invited artist participants, but because of the decision to include both Irish and American writers and poets as integral partners in this creative venture.

One final note. For nearly 2 years Louisville's Suzanne Mitchell and Deirdre Robb of Belfast have been trying to work out the time and place to both create and exhibit a collaborative series of their own. This project is currently scheduled for exhibition in June 2005 at the Louisville Visual Art Association's historic Water Tower facility. Depending on the exact dates their exhibition will be on view, it may be possible to move the Mary Anderson Center artwork from IUS to the Water Tower's 2nd gallery during the Mitchell-Robb installation. Considering the number of artists with hands on involvement for both these projects, it might actually be possible to generate some long overdue media coverage for the Grasses Project in Louisville.

Project History

From Louisville’s earliest history, much of the city’s rich cultural heritage and personality can be traced to large numbers of Irish immigrants who made active and colorful contributions to the region’s growth and development. Breeding and racing horses, as well as distilling whiskey, are Louisville's strongest industries which trace their origin to the lives and traditions of settlers from all over Ireland. Bluegrass music is a direct link to early Celtic airs and tunes locked away to ferment and distill in the timeless treasure vault of Appalachia. Storytelling, folk humor and the roots of gracious Southern hospitality are quite possibly other legacies left by early Irish immigrants to the Bluegrass country, with its rolling green topography so reminiscent of rural Ireland.

To date, there has been no focused opportunity to explore, connect or begin to compare the wealth of visual art talent from these two regions. With that in mind, the GreenGrass/Bluegrass/NewGrass Project brings together professional artists from across the Atlantic to build bridges both personally and career related which will enrich the artistic climate of both communities, with the additional benefit of providing a collaborative context for artists from the north and south of Ireland to meet eachother away from the troubled political climate of their homeland and hopefully forge relationships which will endure once they return to Ireland.

The GreenGrass/Bluegrass/NewGrass Project is a cultural exchange program Louisville artist Susan Gorsen thought about developing for more than 15 years. Her personal love affair with Ireland dates back to a month long visit there in 1968 when she was thoroughly captivated by the land and its people. Although Gorsen’s family tree has no Irish roots, she regards Ireland as her spiritual homeland, a welcoming place that mysteriously tugs at her heart and infuses her with a source of seemingly limitless creative energy. After a 29 year absence, Gorsen now spends part of each summer in Ireland traveling, meeting artists, making her own art as well as working creatively with sick or troubled children as well as young people caught in Northern Ireland’s revolving door of political and paramilitary turmoil.

Since its inception early in 1998, the Grasses Project has introduced Gorsen to numerous artists and arts administrators from both the Republic and the North. As a result of those connections, she first arranged a Louisville show for Fingal artist Maura O’Rourke in March 1999, followed that same summer by 2 Louisville artists exhibiting in the Republic of Ireland. In August 2000 Louisville’s Erin Devine Gallery had an exhibit of Kentucky artists at Ardgillan Castle, an Irish Heritage site north of Dublin; that Louisville gallery is having its 5th annual show of Irish artists in March 2003. In March 2001 Belfast artist Colin McGookin came to Kentucky to exhibit with Queen Street Studio artists Sally Young and Amanda Montgomery at Louisville’s artist run co-op, Zephyr Gallery. In addition, McGookin, former Administrator and founding member of Queen Street Studios, Belfast’s oldest studio cooperative, served as juror for the Louisville Visual Art Association’s 2001 Water Tower Annual Exhibition, an 8 state competition which is the region’s oldest and largest. McGookin also gave a lecture about the evolution of his own career and the difficulties faced by most professional artists in Northern Ireland during the height of The Troubles there.

Also in March 2001, 7 Belfast artists had an exhibition at BankOne Gallery, which is administered by the LVAA. As part of the Grasses Project cultural exchange, 4 of those artists (William Artt, Christine Bowen, Ian Fleming and Deirdre Robb) along with Colin McGookin attended their opening receptions and spent a week in Louisville as guests of local visual artists. Louisville Mayor David Armstrong officially proclaimed the first week in March 2001 as “Irish Artists’ Week” in recognition for and support of the 3 simultaneous gallery exhibitions featuring work by artists from both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

During the summer of 2001, Susan Gorsen was invited back to Belfast by Ian Fleming, winner of a Year of the Artist Grant from the Northern Irish Arts Council, to collaborate with him and Deirdre Robb on “Flow”, his week long community based environmental sculpture project for Creagah Glen Park in Castlereagh Borough, just east of Belfast. This collaborative experience had such a profoundly positive effect on these 3 artists that plans were developed to expand the concept of collaborative ventures by inviting 6 Irish artists to come to Louisville early in April 2002. These artists were teamed with Louisville artists as well as high school students from the LVAA’s innovative Children’s Free Art Classes program who worked as studio assistants. The objective was for the artists' teams to develop and execute a major collaborative work of art at LVAA’s Artopia Creative Arts Studios in an open doors environment giving the public access to the entire creative process. These older CFAC students gained invaluable experience working with professional artists to resolve artistic and technical problems while meeting the 5 day production deadline. The Grasses Project once again arranged for visiting Irish artists Ian Fleming, Colin McGookin, Maura O’Rourke, Deirdre Robb and Marty Walsh to stay as guests in the homes of Louisville artists and further expand the personal aspects of this cultural exchange program.

Working closely with the LVAA and the Castlereagh Borough Council’s Community Services Manager, Billy Coulter, the Grasses Project and studio groups from Belfast are planning for 5-6 Louisville artists to exhibit their work in Northern Ireland during summer 2002. Additional efforts are underway to replicate or redesign the April artists’ Artopia collaboration for these same Louisville artists to work at Castlereagh College in East Belfast with visual artists from the region and a select group of talented Irish teens. This would be a pilot program where Castlereagh Borough’s Community Services would introduce a version of the LVAA’s 76 year old Children’s Free Art Classes Program to educate talented youngsters in Northern Ireland. As an essential part of the Grasses Project, reciprocity for earlier hospitality in Louisville will be provided for the visitors from Kentucky.

The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland both have Arts Councils which provide funding support for established professional artists to produce new work, expand career opportunities, and ship their work to international exhibitions. “Art Flights” is a program through Aer Lingus and the Arts Councils for qualified Irish artists to apply for full reimbursement for 1 round-trip plane ticket involving a significant professional opportunity or international festival or exhibition each year. This kind of career support for creative artists is virtually unheard of in the United States. As a result, many American artists are seldom able to afford any international travel for themselves or their artwork. In addition to these grants covering an artist’s travel expenses, several Irish shipping firms routinely underwrite the significant costs related to professionally crating and shipping artwork to international venues.

In the absence of American public funding for such ambitious artist initiated projects, private donors and the corporate sector are the best hope for program support assisting Louisville artists and their work internationally. The Louisville Visual Art Association, a 501 C-3 non profit organization, is acting as fiscal agent for the GreenGrass/Bluegrass/NewGrass Project and will collect and distribute all funds donated to underwrite this cultural exchange. Money is needed for administrative expenses, Honorariums, publicity and mailings, art materials for the projects, as well as lunches and drinks for the week 10-12 artists and 12-15 CFAC students are working at Artopia in April. In addition a separate fund must be established to support Louisville artists and their work going to Ireland in July during the most expensive travel season. The concept of artists hosting other artists partially solves the housing and meal problem associated with international travel, but the cost of crating and shipping artwork is extremely expensive and places great economic strain on even the most successful artists. Kentucky is not an especially wealthy state; its Arts Council has minimal funding for individual or artists’ initiated projects. As the commonwealth’s largest metropolis, Louisville is a city known to generously support the arts, but most of the time "the arts” refers to the performing arts rather than the visual arts. The established success to date of the GreenGrass/Bluegrass/New Grass Project offers private and corporate art patrons as well as philanthropic institutions the chance to support a major grass roots cultural exchange program which truly expands Louisville’s reputation as a progressive presenter and supporter of all the arts.

For information about contributions, please contact Susan Gorsen by email at for more information about the Green Grass/Bluegrass/New Grass Project.